Autonomous ≠ Unmanned

How the maritime industry can invent its own path in the autonomous space

Clement Renault
Dec 24, 2018 · 5 min read

This simple equation is a key driver of our work at Shone. We believe that humans are extremely valuable and talented. That’s the reason why we care a lot about providing the crews with great technology that makes their lives easier and helps them accomplish more. And to do so, we need to debunk the autonomous = unmanned fallacy.

Actually we believe in this so much that we made this the main message of our website’s landing page.

Shone’s landing page

To understand why we put this message so front and center, we need to take a step back.

The push for manned autonomous ships

And that’s why for instance Starsky Robotics uses teleoperation to drive the trucks in complex urban environments, while on the highway the trucks can drive themselves. Others wish to have human drivers bring the trucks from the warehouse to the highway, and from the highway to the warehouse at the other end of the trip.

But the unfortunate results of all these developments is that the words autonomous and unmanned have become synonymous to many. One of the main reasons is that ground vehicles are usually operated by a single person whose main job is to steer the vehicle. Therefore, autonomous systems that can drive literally make those vehicles unmanned (apart, of course, from passenger vehicles!). There are however major differences between these two concepts:

Autonomous: acting independently or having the freedom to do so.

Unmanned: without the physical presence of people in control.

The particularity of shipping

During a watch, the officer makes sure that she is aware of the ship’s current navigation plan and takes appropriate actions to follow this plan, verifies instruments regularly and performs a constant visual look-out (basically visual checks of the ship’s environment and comparison of this visual input to what the instruments show).

The officers of the watch also perform crucial tasks unrelated to navigation — the Chief Officer is in charge of cargo operations, the Second Officer handles the navigation plan and navigational equipment and the Third Officer ensures that all safety equipments are in proper condition. Additionally they are required to prepare port calls, log information about the ship’s route and status regularly.

“Hours and days of boredom separated by seconds of sheer terror”

During a regular ocean passage, this means that the officers of the watch are expected to be fully focused eight hours a day while, most of the time, nothing is happening. A seafarer I interviewed recently described his job as a watch-stander as “hours and days of boredom separated by seconds of sheer terror”.

Unlike in a car or a truck, a ship’s “driver” is not permanently adjusting steering or gas. Instead they permanently monitor the environment and sometimes take appropriate actions to modify the ship’s trajectory.

What stood out to us was that the officers of the watch could focus on much higher value tasks (or rest) while nothing is happening. This would make them much more efficient and reduce accidents dramatically (more on this in a future blog post!). And this is what we foresaw to be the way forward for the maritime industry.

Countering the unmanned doxa

They did not seem to realize that the main value for the industry would actually come from autonomous, manned ships.

See a selection of headlines (on the left) from mid 2017 to realize how the conversation was stuck in a manned vs unmanned dichotomy, pushed by the major equipment makers.

Pushing for our vision and bringing to the industry this idea that manned and autonomous were not antonyms was one of the main reasons that led us to start the company. Since then we have been continuously sharing that message in our presentations with customers, at events and conferences.

Left: our display at the Autonomous Ship Technology Symposium in Amsterdam (June 2018) — Right: panel at ShippingInsight (October 2018)

The good news is that this message resonates extremely well with the industry stakeholders. Shipowners and operators know the complexity of operating ships and they are far more interested in pragmatic solutions to reduce accidents and improve operational efficiency rather than promises of unmanned vessels not backed up by factual evidence of safety and reliability.

If you’re interested in hearing more about what we do and/or in helping us build the future of shipping, please hit me up (clement@shone.com)!

Also, we are hiring so don’t hesitate to reach out if you find yourself in our job postings.

Shone Blog

Bring autonomy to the shipping industry

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